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The right piece in the right place: the jigsaw of theological education providers

Different providers of theological education – both formal and non-formal - are like the many, different shaped pieces of a jigsaw. The most important thing about the pieces of the jigsaw is probably not whether they are ‘formal’ or ‘non-formal’ but whether they are the right piece in the right place: serving the church effectively and fruitfully.

Integrated learning pathways could bring massive benefits to the churches – with the resources and educational thinking of those trained formally contributing to training in the churches. And they could also bring massive benefit to formal programs, as more, and more suitable candidates for leadership training grow up in the local church. Learners will benefit too – when they know that even the first stages of their learning are recognized and can contribute to milestone awards as they grow in maturity and ministry.

The need for equipping pastors and equipped believers

Sometimes church-based training tools of non-formal theological education are undervalued and overlooked. This means they are not included in seminary curricula, students aren’t trained to used them, and graduates go into pastoral ministry with an incomplete toolkit. Worse, they may go into pastoral ministry without a vision for equipping their church members for their ministry and mission.

But church members are in many ways the missional front line of the church – they meet ‘the world’ everyday. How are they equipped for the mission of God?

If non-formal theological education is seen as less valuable, and has lower status, then resources these programs produce may be limited in scope, in relevance and in quality - with huge consequences for the health of the church.

Joining up the jigsaw puzzle - partnerships between different providers

Building better partnerships between different providers of theological education can help equip seminary graduates as equippers of all God’s people.

Some questions to help think about this:

  • Can seminaries give students a vision for equipping the whole people of God for the mission of God?

  • Can formal training work together with non-formal providers to give students tools that will help them to equip church members? This could include embedding teacher-training as an essential component of our seminary training.

  • Can accrediting agencies encourage seminaries that this forms a vital part of holistic training and equipping with ministry skills?

Joining up the jigsaw puzzle - the potential of integrated learning pathways

Integrated learning pathways, involving a range of different training providers, could bring massive benefits to the churches and could help to equip all God’s people for ministry, and some for leadership.

Could we connect ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’ theological education by planning learning pathways that are rooted in context, in the local church, that involve a range of providers in partnership with the local church? Pathways like this could both equip the people of God for their missional roles, and for some could connect with and contribute to formal leadership training.

I suggest a few questions to consider together:

  • Can existing non-formal providers in a country context connect with one another to see how their programs relate to each other, and to work for integration?

  • Can accrediting agencies provide appropriate quality assurance for non-formal providers, enabling them to demonstrate that their training is effective and fruitful, fit for purpose?

  • Can church leaders and training providers, both formal and non-formal, serving in the same context together, explore what is needed, identify the contributions each can bring, and how they can fit together?

  • Could this then lead to integrated learning pathways joining the pieces of the jigsaw; pathways carefully planned with appropriate quality assurance and assessment?

  • Could the accrediting agencies affirm this approach of integrating church-based and seminary-based theological education so that the seminaries are encouraged to join the pieces of the jigsaw?

For example, we could see a first stage of training in the local church, delivered by a range of providers, leading to an accredited Certificate, which gives the student entry to Diploma level contributions from a formal training provider. The Asia Theological Association’s revised Manual has started to develop guidelines for quality assurance for these learning pathways like this.

Integrated learning pathways could bring massive benefits to churches, programs and learners if we manage to connect the pieces of the jig saw.


This blog is based on Graham's contribution at the ICETE C-21/22 Consultation: Formal and Non-formal Theological Education in Dialogue.

You can read more about some of the ideas here in the ICETE and Increase book, TEE for the 21st Century.

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